Applied Cultural Anthropology History and Heritage Museums

Kelsey Brandt, National Parks Service

This report details my three month internship at a midsize National Park working with the Volunteers-In-Parks (VIP) program. Through the Student Conservation Association, I accepted the position as Volunteer Coordinator Assistant as an AmeriCorps intern. The internship position was created in order to help with the “administration, growth, development, and promotion of the park’s struggling VIP program”. The stated objectives of the internship included:

  • To promote the park’s Volunteers-In-Parks program
  • To assist in recruiting and training volunteers (VIPs)
  • To assist in preparing for development of VIP Strategic Plan and Volunteer Recruitment and Retention Plan
  • To participate in outreach to local organizations in nearby cities
  • To increase diversity among park volunteers

I focused on meeting these objectives using common applied anthropology techniques, including a “bottom-up” approach in participant-observation (as part of my daily duties for the VIP program) and a program evaluation. Due to the nature of my findings, and the fact that park officials turned out to be in large part responsible for the problems with the VIP program itself, I have employed pseudonyms for the individuals mentioned as well as omitted the name of the park for the purpose of this report.

Why Volunteers In Parks Are Very Important People

The Volunteers in Parks Act of 1969 allowed the National Park Service to create their own volunteer program, now known as Volunteers-In-Parks. The program was created to “provide a vehicle through which the National Park Service can accept and utilize voluntary help and services from the public. The major objective of the program is to utilize this voluntary help in such a way that is mutually beneficial to the National Park Service and the volunteer” ( The volunteer program has grown from having 855 volunteers (VIPs) in 1970 to 221,000 in fiscal year 2010. In 2010 alone, VIPs contributed more than 6.4 million hours to the National Park Service (U.S. Dept. of Interior FY 2010).


“I don’t see anything… if you got stung by a bee we’d see it! You’re fine!” I’m sitting in a rocking chair next to VIP Sarah in the yard of an old ranch house (Photo 1). The sun is shining while a gentle fall breeze makes the shadows of the trees we’re under dance across the ground. I’m cursing and rubbing my leg, annoyed that there is no visible proof for the burning sensation spreading across my calf. I glance at my recording device and realize my little outburst has been recorded. Luckily, Sarah had stabbed herself with a sewing needle earlier in the recording, so at least I’m not alone in immortalizing my pain.

I had hoped for a more distraction-free setting for the interview, but the recent drop in temperature meant a drop in visitors, and Sarah was getting a little lonely at the ranch house. Talking to her, you’d never guess that the quick witted, sharp tongued, and high-spirited woman in front of you was 78 years old. She’s travelled the world, ran several successful businesses, taught art classes for a decade, ran an exhibit at the WITTE museum in San Antonio, and single handedly raised two children on her Emergency Room Nurse salary. Did I mention she’s also a member of MENSA? Because that fact, and her age, are on a very need-to-know basis. I gave my calf one last look of betrayal before continuing with the interview. We’re interrupted several more times as visitors stop by and Sarah leaves to tell the history of the ranch house and the surrounding land.

photo 1

Photo 1: Sarah would regularly sit in a rocking chair in the yard sewing quilts or writing poems as Mrs. Jones while waiting for visitors.

Sarah has developed a living history program for the historic site. Dressed in a historically accurate costume of a long wool skirt, apron, and long sleeve patterned shirt designed by her and sewn together by another VIP, she introduces herself as the true matron of the house, Mrs. Jones (pseudonym). Mrs. Jones’ will talk you through the long history of her home, the children she’s lost, the schoolhouse and teachers for her surviving children, the local economy of the time, and what’s growing in the large garden out back. She developed this program after three weeks of intense research on the site. If there are small children in the group, she invites them to play with the “boats”, small blocks of wood, in the stream flowing through the yard (Photo 2). Kids love it. They can float the boats, block the stream, stomp around in the water, or chase each other around the yard. They’re content and within view while the parents listen to Mrs. Jones’ speech. Adults are now free to truly learn about the site. They can spend time asking Mrs. Jones questions, exploring the grounds and buildings, or visiting the small museum inside the ranch house. Should parents not want to leave their children outside while in the museum, there are several small games (appropriate for the time period of course) in the entry room.

Photo 2

Photo 2: Groups of visitors would often spend hours at the ranch house. The bottom left shows two children playing with wooden blocks in the stream while older children sit at a picnic table playing a game from the ranch house. In the very back a parent is leaving to take pictures of the garden.

“[Sarah] is a DELIGHT!!!! Such a great addition to the ranch experience!!! We got to meet and visit with her a couple of weeks ago and although we’ve been there many times she made it come alive and seem like the first visit!!! Thank you for having her!!!” – Visitor Comment

The ranch house consistently received the most visitor comments of any area of the park. The small donation box inside the museum was constantly overflowing and Sarah struggled to get park rangers out often enough to collect the money. With such high levels of visitation and visitor satisfaction, it’s hard to believe that the site had been mostly closed down throughout the peak summer months. Although the struggle to turn the ranch house and museum around was long and difficult, Sarah truly created a memorable experience for visitors.

Jim and Jane

Later that week, I attended an evening program created and presented by another VIP, Jim. Jim is a retired Marine Biology Professor and spends his time volunteering in national parks across the country with his wife, Jane. They’ve spent several months at this park for 3 out of the past 5 years, the only times they couldn’t visit were due to medical problems. Their work includes manning contact stations providing information to hikers, living in campgrounds as Campground Hosts ensuring that campers have a resource nearby, and researching topics for talks about local attractions. Together they’ve dedicated countless hours to developing documents for other VIPs to use upon arrival at this park and others. Tonight Jim will be giving a presentation about an ancient fossilized reef that through millions of years of tectonic activity has become a mountain top. Before the program, Jim spends about an hour walking through the campsites talking to campers and visitors about the program and inviting them to the Visitor Center at 7pm.

Throughout his presentation his true passion shows for this fossilized reef, one so different from the ones he spent decades researching as a Marine Biologist. His experience as a professor lends him many skills as he carefully explains the difficult concepts of how the reef developed and changed over time. His presentation includes a slideshow with incredible graphics and diagrams that he’s created over the years of volunteering here. I’m sitting in the second row, and there’s a young girl sitting in front of me. Several times she turns to her mother excitedly with a smile on her face as he explains something particularly “cool” about the history of the reef. She laughs along with the rest of the crowd as he makes jokes and turns around in her seat to face each individual asking questions at the end.

Sarah and Jim’s programs are perfect examples of how the Volunteers-In-Parks program can be used to meet the National Park Service’s vision and goal of interpretation as “a catalyst in creating an opportunity for the audience to form their own intellectual and emotional connections with the meanings and significance inherent in the resource” (NPS). However, interpretation is just one area of park activities in which VIPs can participate successfully. I mentioned the VIP that sewed Sarah’s costume, a retired school teacher that also helped digitize the park’s archives of thousands of books and articles in her down time as Campground Host. While she spent time in the library, her husband was in the Maintenance division assisting with engine repairs, oil changes, and general construction around the park. I could list hundreds of other ways that the volunteers I met and worked with used their unique skill sets to improve the park experience for visitors or assist staff members in their duties.

The National Park Service as a whole attracts thousands of experienced individuals each year. The NPS Strategic Plan for Fiscal Years 2009-2014 documents survey results showing that “86.1% of those who volunteer have a degree beyond high school, 29.5% of volunteers hold a Master’s, Doctoral, or professional degree, [and] 46.2% have some college/associate degree, or four year college degree.” These VIPs bring extensive experience and a wide range of knowledge to the park service. Their status as volunteers allows for more flexibility in the positions they fill in order to fully apply the skills they bring to the table.

Clarity, Accountability, and Buy In

A process approach was chosen for my program evaluation due to its ability to analyze how well each step of the process, from volunteer recruitment to send off, was individually working to meet the goals of the program. As Alexander Ervin stated in reference to researching immigrant populations: “the task of measuring success in a multitude of separate and overlapping circumstances… is infinitely complex and cannot be easily measured by a fixed set of outcome criteria”; “process evaluations look at overall progress through the steps or means to the desired ends” (Ervin 2005). The VIP program’s position at the intersection of service-wide NPS vision, park-specific needs, and individual VIPs’ aims requires a very broad application of the term ‘goals’. The “bottom-up” approach to the process evaluation allowed me to focus on the individuals on the frontline of the program, such as supervisors and volunteers, while keeping in mind the desires of the top tier staff members. My research included participant observation in daily park activities with staff and volunteers as well as many informal interviews about the state of the VIP program through their eyes. I conducted key informant interviews with VIPs that had experience volunteering at other parks in order to provide accurate comparisons for the VIP program. An open ended survey of volunteer supervisors was created and distributed in order to gather information on their participation in the program and what they felt their needs were as supervisors. In addition, I attended several Squad Meetings with the Superintendent and chiefs of each division that allowed for open dialogue from top level park staff regarding the program.

Due to the interconnected nature of applying national standards to specific park needs and individual VIPs’ desires, an evaluation focusing on outcomes-only would miss important details in this nuanced relationship. An example of focusing too much on the perceived “outcomes” as a standard of measurement of success was made apparent on my first day of the internship, when I was called into a Squad Meeting. Squad Meetings are held every week between the Chiefs of each division and the Superintendent. For a part of this meeting, the Superintendent wanted to focus on the VIP program and had invited me and the Volunteer Coordinator, who had never attended one before, to participate. He told the Volunteer Coordinator that he would like to see a 30% increase in the number of volunteer hours from previous years. He mentioned that this wouldn’t be difficult, in fact all the Volunteer Coordinator had to do was try to accurately record the current hours to meet this goal. By focusing only on the outcome of increased VIP hours, there was no call to better the actual program, only to meet a new goal within the current circumstances. During this same meeting, the staff and I were told to focus on creating “Clarity, Accountability, and Buy In” within the VIP program. While I do agree that these are important aspects that the program needs, they were simply buzzwords that held no place in the reality I consistently witnessed during my time at the park.

The major findings of my research indicate a stark need for more park involvement as a whole in order to meet the park’s own goals and National Park Service standards for the Volunteers-In-Parks program. I observed a severe lack of planning in multiple areas. These areas include lack of foresight into volunteer needs of divisions, not having staff available during VIP arrival and orientation, and incompatibility of volunteers with position obligations. Acknowledgement of volunteer successes or experience was minimal. Diversity among volunteers was noticeably absent, with all volunteers that actively participated in the VIP program being light skinned, retired, and able to provide their own housing. This lack of diversity was not observed in the wide variety of applications received. Overall satisfaction with the program was very low for the chiefs of divisions (with one exception), while volunteer supervisors and VIPs felt the program was adequate, but needed improvements. Major needs of the park include creating park wide standards for the program in areas of recruitment, orientation, and recording volunteer hours.

Based on these findings, I created several recommendations that I believe will create a stronger and sustainable program for the park. Most volunteer needs occur during the busy seasons of the park, and should be taken into account during preparation stages. Increased diversity among VIPs can be accomplished in several ways. Most notably, the park needs to look into housing options for VIPs that don’t have access to an RV/trailer. These options exist, but require some reframing of how volunteers are viewed by the park in order to be utilized. Another option is active recruitment in local communities which are home to very diverse populations that can provide their own housing. Finally, the Volunteer Coordinator should be given time to work with the VIP program and assist staff in the operations involved in order to create a smoothly running program.

While several of these points were covered as objectives of the internship, in reality there was no actual desire to address or act on them from park staff. I found the treatment of many volunteers to be disheartening, and often unable to meet even the most basic of NPS VIP program standards. The federal bureaucracy that existed between volunteers, supervisors, and chiefs created undue hardship for the smallest tasks.


  • Ervin, Alexander M. 2005. Applied Anthropology: Tools and Perspectives for Contemporary Practice. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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